Singaporean was just metres away from Thai gunman, could smell the discharge as he shot victims

A screengrab from CCTV footage showing Thai soldier Jakrapanth Thomma walking through the Terminal 21 shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima on Feb 8, 2020.
A screengrab from CCTV footage showing Thai soldier Jakrapanth Thomma walking through the Terminal 21 shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima on Feb 8, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - A Singaporean man who survived the horrific mass shooting in Thailand's Nakhon Ratchasima province over the weekend narrowly escaped being targeted by the rogue soldier who killed at least 29 people and left some 60 people injured.

Trapped in the lower ground level of Terminal 21 shopping mall with his 11-year-old son, Mr Tay Yong Hwee was close enough to hear the soldier, Jakrapanth Thomma, bark instructions to victims.

He was also close enough to smell the discharge as Jakrapanth shot them.

Mr Tay was eventually rescued at 3am on Sunday (Feb 9) morning by Thai security officers, hours before the suspect was shot dead on the same floor where Mr Tay was hiding.

Based on his Facebook profile, Mr Tay lives in Korat - the other name for Nakhon Ratchasima - and used to attend St Andrew's Secondary School.

When contacted through the pastor of his church in Nakhon Ratchasima, Mr Tay declined The Straits Times' request for an interview.

But his account of the horrific events was circulated by a fellow church member who went by the name of "Yuwaret Oi" on Facebook on Sunday (Feb 9 evening). The post has since been removed.

According to the post, Mr Tay and his son were searching desperately for a place to hide in the basement supermarket, Foodland, after the soldier ran amok in the mall.

Jakrapanth, a sergeant-major based Suratham Phithak military camp in Nakhon Ratchasima, killed his commanding officer over a dispute on Saturday (Feb 8), seized heavy weapons and ammunition from the barracks, and then drove a stolen army vehicle to Terminal 21, which was packed then with weekend shoppers.

Dressed in combat gear, he began shooting at people near and inside the mall.

According to the Facebook account posted by Yuwaret Oi, Mr Tay and his younger son were at the Foodland supermarket on the lower ground level when the commotion began. Father and son moved from the fresh food section to what could have been a storage room, where they met a family with a young child about two to three years old.

"There were around 10 of us in there. We turned off all lights and doors and tried being as quiet as we could. It was terrifying, cold and frustrating. We heard gunshots from time to time."

Then, "God told me to leave the room. It was not safe. And then one Thai man named Tick... asked us all to move to a safer place, the electricity control room deeper inside. I asked the father (of the family): 'Do you want to go with us?' He replied with worry on his face: 'No, my wife and I will stay here.'

"That was our last conversation."

 
 
 
 

Holed up in the second hiding place as a group of seven, Mr Tay then heard the young child of the family scream, followed by loud gunshots.

"There were lots of gunshots aimed at that door. I heard the killer kick the door to enter the room. His footsteps were just 2m away from us.

" 'Come here!' the killer said. The child cried and screamed but seemed to be taken far away. This was then followed by more gunshots. I smelled the discharge. I used to smell it when I was a soldier in the Singapore army."

Mr Tay held his son tight. "He was ill and I was afraid he could cough. Thank god all of us were quiet, holding our breath…

"I am so sorry for the family."

The man named Tick managed to contact people outside the mall. "He said to us men, 'If time comes we have to fight, I would start it, then you should tie him up, slow him down and let the women and children flee.' I knew then that if we were to die, we would die fighting. At least my son should survive."

Nine hours into his ordeal, in the wee hours of Sunday, Mr Tay and his son - along with others hiding with them - were eventually evacuated by Thai security forces. He was reunited with his Thai wife and elder son.

Jakrapanth was shot dead about six hours later.